The 2010 campaign has kicked off with the least auspicious start we’ve seen for many elections. Neither leader offered a compelling performance in their initial outings.

Julia Gillard did give a polished but content-free opening address, more of the same that we’ve had from her over the last three weeks, with added “moving forward” – lots of it.  “Moving forward” and “moving Australia forward” also feature heavily in Labor’s first positive ad of the campaign (the Liberals’ first online ad is here).  The Labor ad is a smart, short piece of glitz that quickly runs through the key Labor themes.  But for a “positive” ad, it’s rather negative – negative toward asylum seekers in particular (couched of course in terms of border security), and negative toward “big Australia”.

Labor’s emphasis on “big Australia” or rather its purported opposite, “sustainable Australia”, is remarkable.  Gillard mentioned it in her speech to open the campaign, in addition to it appearing in Labor’s ad. Gillard will be addressing the Eidos Institute in Brisbane this morning and Crikey understands population will again be a key topic for the Prime Minister.

In effect, the Government has taken an Opposition attack point and, rather than debate it or show leadership in rejecting it, it has embraced it with passion, essentially hoping that voters reward it for its enthusiastic conversion from Kevin Rudd’s embrace of high immigration.

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Clearly the issue is showing up in Labor’s focus group research strongly.

Tony Abbott will hope the campaign doesn’t continue in the manner of his first day. He was the victim of what looked poor planning when he fronted the media in Brisbane with no backdrop or supporting paraphernalia except two flags, one of which barely made it into shot.  It’s a minor matter, and won’t register with voters, but it looked cheap, particularly because of the unflattering lighting on Abbott.

More to the point, he was immediately pinned by journalists on the Workchoices issue.

This was Eric Abetz’s fault. Yesterday morning the Tasmanian senator and IR spokesman dropped Abbott in it by undermining what he must have known was a key Abbott pre-campaign moment, his “cremation” of Workchoices. Abetz indicated that, while the Coalition wouldn’t change the Fair Work Act, it would change regulations and ministerial directions under the Act.  But Abbott compounded the problem by refusing to rule out such changes, in effect inviting Labor to assault his credibility.

This is trouble for Abbott, who famously was an opponent of the original Workchoices (an early example of how Abbott might be something of a policy-free zone, but has acute political instincts). Polling consistently shows most voters believe the Liberals will try to bring back Workchoices no matter what they say, and are concerned about it. The Opposition knows it, which is why Abbott was using such strong language to condemn John Howard for introducing it in the first place without flagging it as a pre-election policy in 2004. That his opportunity to “cremate” the issue right at the start of the campaign was spoilt (despite the usual cheerleading from the right-wing media, whose journalists heavily promoted the move as a display of tactical brilliance) probably means Abbott will be dogged by the issue till polling day.

So both sides are running away from former policies that they think were either mistakes or sold so badly as to become toxic.  Tony Abbott can’t run far enough from Workchoices. Both sides are in retreat from high immigration – a shameful development for Australian economic policy.  And Labor has yet to find a suitable replacement for the emissions trading scheme it abandoned.

We have two novice leaders who are busy focussing on what both sides are not supporting, rather than what they are.

This may be a deck-clearing exercise to enable Labor and the Coalition to get on the front foot in terms of policy, but it doesn’t bode well for anyone hoping for genuine reform commitments.

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